Soil health continues to be a concern for producers and consumers across the country as quality dwindles.
On Aug. 15, 2019 the Halton Soil and Crop Improvement Association put together a soil health seminar and farm tour to reiterate to showcase soil health concerns – along with what farmers are doing to improve it.
Why it matters: The degradation and erosion of soil from agriculture fields is higher than its formation rate. It takes 500 to 1,000 years through natural processes to generate 1.2 inches of top soil.
Don Lobb, Ontario pioneer in the use of conservative tillage, says the agri-food ecosystem is not sustainable because of two critical faults. He was part of a panel of speakers on soil health at the Halton meeting.
“The first fault is that most food system waste and human excrement is not directed back to the soil where our food is produced, thus we have a growing carbon and nutrient gap. Second, tillage disrupts the bio-processes that are essential to nutrient retrieval, to carbon sequestration and to soil aggregation. This results in loss of water, nutrients and carbon.”
Soil aggregates are the most certain indicator of soil health and productivity, they require organic matter and active soil biota while providing water infiltration and storage, carbon and nutrients, soil strength and stability.
“Aggregation is a function of nature – we must mimic nature if we are to produce food in a reliable and sustainable way. Tillage is not natural, it destroys the aggregates, and the organic matter and biota which are essential to aggregate development,” says Lobb.
Farmers across the Halton region are taking many approaches in working with their soil.
“There are different levels of how you manage that and different activities that you can do, those activities are built around the structure of your farm, what kind of farm it is and what kind of access farmers have to either technology, information or finances to make that happen,” says Greg Hannam with Woodrill Farms, one of the farms visited by the Halton SCIA.
Another farm, Kitcholm Farms, uses cover crops and no-till to help with soil health on their operation. They have noticed compaction doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them and their soil health continues to improve.
A field planted in triticale at Kitcholm Farms is full of aggregates they report.
They were able to harvest rye at 80 bushel per acre with only putting on 30 pounds of 28 per cent, an indication of soil health.
Cove-Valley Farms said a local cash crop farmer was able to stretch out his planting season this spring with the wet weather as the roots from his cover crop kept the planter afloat during the wet season.
“The clover had a nice catch because of how wet the soil is; the vegetation eliminated any plater plugging with the sticky soil surface that was there.”
As well, the heavy vegetation on the soil surface allowed for better infiltration and lower water run-off during the wet season.
Woodrill Farms located north of Guelph uses technology to derive information and make management decisions to better their soil health.
“I bought municipal compost last year, we spread it across the field,” says Hannam. Fertility maps showed him which areas most needed the compost.
The maps they use allow them to apply fertilizer where needed across the field.
“Is it healthy for soil to apply more fertilizer than what the crop needs? Why don’t I put what that crop needs and utilize it?” he said. “I’m not putting extra – it has a financial benefit but also helps the soil.”